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Labor Law and the Democratic Primary

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There’s quite a disconnect in how we are talking about work as the left has revitalized itself over the past decade. There is a nearly unprecedented conversation about big issues of inequality and the need to address these problems. That’s led to serious proposals about single-payer health care, the Fight for $15 and higher minimum wages generally, and debates between advocates of Universal Basic Income and a federal job guarantee, of which I am decidedly on the latter. This has led to a lot of cheering for the teachers’ strikes and other workplace actions that have made many feel that maybe, just maybe, we might be turning a corner to a better day.

At the same time, there is almost no talk about union rights and labor law. Take the Democratic primary, as it develops.

Call it a sin of omission, but the historic decline of labor union power was on full display during recent CNN town hall meetings with 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.

All three nationally televised forums featured questions on a range of issues from students, nonprofit directors, community leaders and other traditional Democratic constituencies (including undisclosed lobbying firms), but not a single question was asked about national labor law.

It’s not just CNN, either. By and large, the announced 2020 presidential candidates have not spoken at length on the stump about their agenda for labor, at least not yet, instead sticking to broader themes such as economic inequality and policies like raising the minimum wage, Medicare-for-All, free college tuition and universal child care.

“The candidates are making a distinction between labor policy and labor issues,” David Yepsen, the host of Iowa Press and a leading expert on presidential politics, told In These Times. “It’s politically safer to talk about health care, expanded Medicare, and a higher minimum wage than it is to talk about things like card check.”

Most voters don’t understand the latter, even though you’ve got to do things like the latter to get the former,” Yepsen added. “If you don’t find ways to strengthen the labor movement, there isn’t going to be the political support to do the things needed to rebuild the working class.”

The failure of the Obama administration and a filibuster-proof Democratic congress to pass the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act is a good example. The legislation would have made it easier for workers to form a union with a simple 50 percent majority. But there was little political will by the Democratic leadership at the time to get it done given other priorities such as an economic stimulus, Obamacare, reining in Wall Street and withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The issue agenda of the Obama White House was perhaps justifiable at the time, but it also came with a steep opportunity cost. The Democrats’ failure to strengthen union bargaining and consolidate a working-class base of political support when they had the chance helped lead to an eventual Republican takeover of government between 2010 and 2016, paving the way for future attacks on labor by right-wing governors and the Supreme Court.

Has the new crop of 2020 presidential candidates learned this lesson? All of the declared candidates who are considered front runners have strong ties to organized labor.

With the notable exception of Klobuchar, nearly all of the senators running for president— Gillibrand, Harris, Warren and Booker—co-sponsored Sanders’ 2018 Workplace Democracy Act, which would overhaul existing labor law and make it easier for workers to form and fund their own unions.

The article goes on to explain these plans. So maybe there will be some interest in really talking about labor law? I guess I will believe it when I see it. Americans are cheered by protest and poll well in supporting unions, but that is often belied by the fact that actual union issues are largely ones with soft support, rarely the priority of many, and are often legalistic and obscure, making campaigning around them understandably more difficult.

And while I’d rather not address this, lest anyone accuse the author of green laternism, he is absolutely right that had Obama and the Democratic Senate held that 60-vote majority for long enough, eventually, maybe they would have gotten around to the Employee Free Choice Act, but it was fairly far down the list of priorities. The stimulus and the ACA were first and cap and trade was next on the agenda. Maybe after that it would have been the EFCA, but probably not, not even to mention that it’s highly questionable whether Blanche Lincoln and Max Baucus and company would have supported it anyway.

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